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March 24, 2004   Email to Friend 

Jackson County Artist Adds Color To Her Golden Years
Fran Sharp

Jackson County Farmers Federation member Alta Hughes, above, finds joy in painting people and scenes that are reminiscent of the rural life she holds dear.
Alta Hughes' retirement years are more colorful than golden. Reviving a love of painting she "put aside" until her family was raised and 20 years of child nutrition at the local schools was completed, Alta turned again to her paints five years ago as not only a challenging hobby, but also as a way to share her rural lifestyle with others.

Since then, she has decorated rooms with what she calls realistic paintings of people and scenes near and dear to the country life she treasures at her Jackson County home. Each room is furnished with family antiques dating back four generations, accented by paintings Alta has created from memorable scenes she hopes to hold in her heart forever.

Described by friends as "one of the nicest people you'll meet," Alta paints for the love of painting, preferring to give her work to family, friends and as special donation gifts for fundraisers and the like. "I rarely sell anything," she said. "I really prefer it that way so that I can just paint the things I want to. I have done a couple of commission things, but not often."

As a child, Alta liked to paint, but she didn't seriously pursue it until much later. Her husband Frank farmed and Alta worked as a child nutritionist in the local schools, raising three children along the way, which didn't leave much time for personal creative pursuits.

Today, the walls of the Hughes family home, are filled with paintings Alta created when she "finally had time to sit down and paint."

A treasured view of an old barn occupies a place of honor in the Hugheses' den. "It's a very special barn that looks like most barns," Alta explained, "We live across the road from where my husband grew up, and I took snaps of the old barn at his homeplace. I came back across the road and got out my paints and canvas and painted the barn. It took about three days of steady working. Then I took wood from the barn and had it framed. That was his birthday present."

Nearby hangs a large painting of a couple slowly walking a woodsy path. The elderly man is using a walking stick as he helps his wife negotiate the uneven path. "They are helping each other along," Alta explains. "They could be my grandparents or yours." Taken by the tenderness and history illustrated in the painting, one might think it was a favorite couple of the artist. But no, Alta said, the couple is not one she knows, but one she might have stopped to chat with had she encountered them on the path.

Another favorite work is a winter scene at dusky dark. A man and a boy are hauling in a Christmas tree to a snow-covered log cabin. "This is a scene you might see anywhere in the woods," she said. "I just paint everyday things that I see in magazines or things I see in my head," she added. Friends and family know of her love of old country things and keep her supplied with postcards and scenes clipped from magazines and books that might appeal to her artistic eye.

"I love color," she says, sweeping her arm around to indicate a wall bright with paintings of flowers displayed in crocks, pots, jugs as well as flowers growing in the wild. A clump of blue Iris in shady woods hangs above an antique table on which a pitcher of Iris is displayed. She brings several of her pictures to life by accenting them with subjects repeated in table decorations and family memorabilia. Her grandfather's walking stick sits beside his chair in one picture underscored by a collection of walking sticks standing at-the-ready nearby.

"I think it's important to have a hobby no matter what your age," the tireless painter said. "I like to keep active physically and mentally. I took a painting class at a local college once, but mostly I am self-taught. I have an attic where I paint and can look out over the pastures. It's a special place for me, but then I've never been bored with staying at home."

She has expanded her hobby into a way of getting back into the schools as well. With five grandchildren, Alta's trips into classrooms as part of Alabama's Ag in the Classroom program inspired her to share her painting skills with students. Grandchildren Daniel, Natalie, Slay, Nathan and Britney and their friends have all benefited from "little art workshops" where painting is tailored to the class lesson. "We might paint different floral scenes with specific groups of numbers for math or work on words with English. We learned a new word at one class sitting after painting a basic scene," she said. "We added details to 'embellish' the painting. I told the children it's like when your mom gets up in the morning to fix your breakfast, maybe she looks tired without her makeup. Then she 'embellishes' her face and she looks prettier. I take the paints and brushes with me, and the children have done gifts for their teachers as well as ornaments and crafts."

As a devoted grandmother, retiree and former school system employee, Alta feels a responsibility to contribute to the community, particularly through working with children. She encourages others to do the same. "I am not a professionally trained artist, but the children don't care. They love for people to come into the schools and do things with them. It might be art, music, reading--whatever. It's an important contribution people with time to spare can make."

Alta's other volunteer activities include serving as chairman of the Women's Committee with the Jackson County Farmers Federation and secretary of the county board. She previously served on the Federation's State Women's Committee, and she assists her husband with his duties on Alfa's state board.

"I admit I am a sentimentalist, and I love the farm life," Alta said. "To me a good day is taking a long walk through the pasture with nobody but me and the cows and the coyotes. Then I might go home and paint what I saw so it will be there forever."

Alta and Frank Hughes' farm is located at 1629 County Road 60, Pisgah, AL 35765, or reach them by phone at (256) 451-3346.

Freelance writer Fran Sharp lives in Alabaster.

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